Bits & Pieces... by David Sundman

Collecting Brings Joy in Any Field

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Bob Gilson, collector of automatic musical instruments, shows Dave Bowers and Ken Goldman a stunning piece

I have written about the American Numismatic Association’s 2007 World’s Fair of Money in Milwaukee. This ANA summer convention, which moves around the country, is always the high point of the year for me and for our numismatic staff. This year I took an extra day prior to the show and joined dealer and friend Q. David Bowers of Stack’s and fellow dealer Ken Goldman on a road trip. Dave had invited me to join him on a visit to see Bob Gilson, a top collector in an entirely different field...

Over the years, Dave and I have taken several day trips to various New England museums, historical societies, and bank vaults. This trip did not involve coins or bank notes. Bob is the owner of one of the finest collections of automatic musical instruments in the world. And for me, it was a collecting adventure like no other. The objects Bob collects once populated theatres and dance halls around the world from the 1850s to the early 1920s. But over time, most of them have disappeared, and only collectors like Bob are preserving them and restoring them for future generations to enjoy.

Unbeknown to most coin collectors, who may be well aware of his multitudinous coin and bank note books, Q. David Bowers also happens to be one of the top published experts in the field of mechanical and coin operated musical instruments. In fact, in 1972 Dave wrote and published the definitive work on the subject, Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments. This has been reprinted several times, and covers music boxes, player pianos, calliopes, organs, photoplayers, and other self-playing instruments of 1750-1940, many of them coin-operated. Over the years I had seen several of these, thanks to our close proximity to Clark's Trading Post in nearby North Woodstock, New Hampshire. The Clark family has quite a collection in daily operation during the summer as part of their various attractions. All are great fun to see when you come to New Hampshire to visit Littleton Coin Company!

This field trip was a really memorable experience, spending hours visiting one of the top collectors in the field. In addition to spending time with fine fellow travelers, it was great fun to see a collector, albeit in a totally different field, enjoying the objects he collects. At the end of our visit, Bob gave me an autographed copy of The Golden Age of Automatic Musical Instruments. This is a new 436-page hardcover book featuring hundreds of awe-inspiring automatic musical instruments from Bob’s collection, as well as from the collections of James Krughoff and Jasper Sanfilippo. The resulting book is a masterpiece. I really enjoyed meeting Bob, visiting with Dave and Ken along the route, and seeing and hearing Bob’s musical marvels. Now, if only I had a large enough space to house one of these...